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Everything You Need To Know About Mammograms

August 02, 2023

Turning 40 is a big milestone, and for women, this birthday also signals that’s it’s time for annual mammograms. The visit is not one that anyone looks forward to, but it’s a crucial part of staying healthy and avoiding breast cancer

Every woman over the age of 40 needs this exam, even if you have breast implants. A breast-enhancement surgery does not typically remove a substantial amount of breast tissue. Women with implants will still rely on the same mammogram machine. The difference is that the technologist will simply use a maneuver to temporarily displace the implant to the side during the imaging. 

What Is a Mammogram

A mammogram machine is a 3D camera that takes multiple pictures of your breast from different angles. These machines in the past recorded only single 2D images similar to a single polaroid image taken from the front, but today they’re capable of taking a series of slice-by-slice images through the entire breast more similar to video recordings from inside.  

Getting routine mammograms is crucial, but this technology does not catch all breast cancers, which is why self-exams and primary clinician or gynecology visits are also part of the defense against breast cancer.  

What To Expect During a Mammogram

 You will stand in front of a special X-ray machine. A technologist places your breast on a plastic plate. Then another plate is lowered, firmly pressing and flattening your breast, holding it still while the X-ray is being taken. Most women feel pressure. Some describe the procedure as painful. This process will be repeated to take side images of the breast, then repeated for your other breast. The technologist will confirm that the images were taken correctly, then the next step is to wait for a doctor to interpret the images. 

Tips for the Day of the Mammogram 

  • Don’t wear deodorant, perfume or powder on the day of the mammogram. These can appear as white spots on the mammogram and interfere with interpretation. 
  • Wear a top with a skirt or pants because you’ll need to undress from your waist up for the mammogram. 
  • If you are experiencing symptoms, let your referring physician or technologist know before the screening mammogram. A diagnostic workup that may include diagnostic mammogram and/or diagnostic ultrasound may be needed instead of the screening mammogram. Symptoms may include a palpable breast lump, nipple discharge, skin change and focal pain in one breast.  

Don’t Expect Results the Same Day

Unlike dental X-rays, mammogram results usually are not available the same day that the images are taken. It can take anywhere from the next day to within the next 30 days for your doctor to look over the results. 

High Risk Factors for Breast Cancer

You are at greater risk for breast cancer if: 

  • Your direct family members, including your mother, sister, grandmother or aunt, have had breast cancer 
  • You have genetic abnormalities, with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation being a commonly discussed type
  • You had radiation exposure as a kid, as is sometimes seen in children who received radiation therapy for chest lymphoma

Family history plays a role in breast cancer, but not as big as you may think. If your mother or aunt has breast cancer, that increases your risk. However, if none of your family members have had breast cancer, that doesn’t put you in the clear. 

To Find Out If You Have the BRCA Gene

You can talk to a referring physician, who can order a blood test at the lab. One drop of blood can be used to test for 100 abnormalities, including the BRCA genes. Or you can complete an at-home DNA test.

Symptoms of Breast Cancer 

Many people do not feel any symptoms of breast cancer. Nor is breast cancer necessarily painful, especially in the early stages, which is why annual screening is recommended. 

However, if breast cancer is present and has been for a while, there can be symptoms

  • Nipple changes or inversion 
  • Nipple discharge 
  • Palpable lumps in the breast or armpits 
  • Pain concentrated in one area on one breast 
  • Redness or scaly skin on the breast

Any of these indicate that it’s time to make an appointment with your primary care physician or gynecologist before your next regular check-up. Note that bilateral diffuse pain that comes and goes, similar to your menstrual cycle, is almost never cancer. 

You Don’t Need a Referral

A screening mammogram is considered a routine test and most places conducting mammograms do not require a doctor referral. 

However, for a diagnostic appointment, for which a doctor aims to rule out diagnoses, you do need a prescription from a doctor or clinician. There also needs to be some follow-up in place for this type of visit. 

If Your Results Require Further Testing

If something is detected in the mammogram, you will receive a call back. In this case, you may need a biopsy, which is a minimally invasive procedure. You will a receive local anesthetic, via a shot in your breast, for this procedure.

If cancer is found, the sooner it’s detected, the higher the survival rate. There’s a big difference between finding a mass that is still 0.5 cm as opposed to 5 cm. Every year you forgo screening is the chance for something to go undetected. 

Future Exams

You will screen annually for as long as you are healthy and willing to undergo treatment should anything be detected.

Annual mammograms are just one more way to safeguard your health and take the best possible care of yourself at every age.

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